The ingredients of optimal health
Medical research has identified the elements in local diet that help residents maintain an excellent health at an advanced age. Some factors, such as landscape and climate, are linked to specific areas; other determinants, those of a more general nature, can contribute positively to human vitality irrespective of geography.
It stands to reason that the driving factors of extraordinary longevity must correspond to those of excellent health. The issue is to identify elements that we can take up in our daily life without incurring disproportionate effort and expense.
Even if we possessed evidence that some exotic herb is the key to excellent health, such knowledge would be of little help to people who cannot afford to purchase that plant on a regular basis. What we need are ideas that are, at the same time, beneficial and workable.
The island of Sardinia, located in the Mediterranean Sea, is a favourite vacation destination for many Europeans. Its weather and landscape, however beautiful and pleasant, are not much different from other locations around the world. This factor alone renders the study of longevity in Sardinia particularly interesting.
Lessons drawn from the diet in Sardinia can be applied in other regions of the globe. This aspect is crucially important, since studies conducted in other areas of the world often link the enviable physical condition of youthful nonagenarians to herbs and plants that are unavailable to the populations of other countries.
A remarkably simple approach
Another remarkable outcome of the research carried out in Sardinia lies in the apparent simplicity of the formula. In contrast, if you have read any modern book on nutrition, you will have noted the extreme complexity of the advice it presents. Page after page are filled with long lists of recommendations and tables showing the specific dosage of each ingredient. Who can remember all that?
Like in business, success in health matters tends to depend on just a few factors. Minute instructions telling salesmen how to close a deal are useless in a commercial environment. Life is too fast for knowledge that cannot be summarized in a small number of consistent principles. The human mind is constructed to reduce knowledge to the essential and forget cumbersome details.
What are the few factors behind the excellent health of the elderly living in Sardinia? The conclusions of the research can be presented in five rules that are logical and easy to remember. These recommendations can be practised inexpensively by individuals in most countries of the world.
Fresh produce is best
First, eat fresh food, above all vegetables and fruit: This truth may seem deceptively self-evident. In reality, few people make the effort to select fresh ingredients for their meals. The great majority of packaged food, whether intended for breakfast or dinner, does not contain fresh vegetables or fruit.
If you eat out frequently, you might go a long time without tasting fresh ingredients, except for the occasional salad. Can you figure out alternatives so that you consume more vegetables and fruit? What can you do to reduce your dependence on packaged food?
The reason why few people consume fresh food has to do more with inconvenience than expense. Eating fresh fruit and produce requires frequent visits to the supermarket, to the detriment of more pleasurable activities. Are you willing to make the necessary effort to protect your health?
Second, use olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is consumed widely in Mediterranean countries. Italian, Greek, and Spanish cooking include olive oil as necessary ingredient in many dishes, as well in salads, marinades, and sauces. The use of butter and margarine for cooking is considered an inferior choice for your health.
The retail price of olive oil has diminished in the last decade due to changes in packaging. The traditional dark green glass bottle has been replaced by a hard plastic bottle of the same colour, which seems to preserve the characteristics of olive oil equally well.
If you don't live in a region where olive oil is in abundant supply, you might have to pay a few additional dollars per bottle. All in all, the decision to incorporate extra virgin olive oil in your diet might increase your food budget by a couple of hundred dollars per year, which is a modest investment if you consider the advantages for your health.
Third, consume lemons and oranges: Citrus fruits contain high doses of vitamin C, which reinforces our immune system and helps combat cardiovascular disease. Vitamin C is also known to protect human cells against the accumulation of noxious substances.
Fresh oranges and lemons are available in most regions of the world at reasonable price, depending on the season. Grapefruit, papaya, strawberries, and mango are good substitutes for oranges and lemons.
Amongst the vegetables, vitamin C is also abundant in spinach and broccoli. Irrespective of your place of residence, eating citrus or similar fruits is an affordable habit that you should acquire.
Fourth, eat fish often, and lean meat occasionally: The reason behind this recommendation lies in the beneficial type of fat that is present in fish. Fish, in particular oily fish such as mackerel and sardines, is rich in a type of fat known as "omega-3." This element has proven to reduce dangerous cholesterol in human beings.
Fresh fish is a major component of the traditional Greek, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese diets. Unfortunately, this dietary habit has declined in the last decades, leading to an overall deterioration of the health level of the population.
Wild salmon, whose consumption is known to be particularly beneficial, is neither part of the traditional diet of Sardinia nor widely available across the world. Luckily, in most countries, you can find at least one or two types of fish that are affordable. Eating fish is a habit that you can easily take up and which can bring substantial advantages to your health.
Fifth, don't drink alcohol, or if you do, drink a glass of red wine: The red wine produced in Sardinia, in particular the type known as "vino nero" due to its dark colour, contains high doses of poly-phenol. This element, which comes from grape skins, has been proven to have a positive effect on the human cardiovascular system.
The consumption of red wine might explain why extraordinary longevity in Sardinia is mostly a male characteristic. Octogenarian and nonagenarian women are also present in the island, but their number does not reach the unusual proportion of healthy elderly men.
Red wines produced in other countries may contain less poly-phenol, but a moderate consumption should also produce a beneficial outcome for your health unless there are specific reasons that advise against your consuming any alcohol at all. Quality red wine is available around the world at reasonable price and most people love its taste.
If you want to improve your overall health, forget about complicated rules. In the field of business, successful entrepreneurs know that the best results are obtained by concentrating energies on essential areas. Similarly, when it comes to enhancing our vitality, we will be better off if we acquire a few effective and pleasurable habits.
Image: photograph of a late medieval painting taken by John Vespasian in 2015.
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